What you need to know:
- Oxford Artisan Distillery has worked with archeobotanists to bring back grain varietals thought to be long lost.
- Most current varietals or rye and wheat are genetically designed to be suitable for modern day farming practices, which do not encourage biodiversity and are mostly mono-varietal ie. Farms harvest a single type of grain to ensure high crop yields.
- The distillery wants to help bring back these heritage varietals and encourage more sustainable farming practices that protects and promotes biodiversity.
- Through whisky of course! And also gin and vodka. By turning these revitalized crop varietals into great spirits, the distillery hopes to encourage the use of more eco-friendly farming practices.
- The inaugural bottle (of only 502 bottles) is a mix of barley, rye and wheat (called Maslin) and has notes of banana bread, praline, nutmeg, almonds and sourdough.
- It’s creamy, it’s organic, it tastes good, what more do you want!
John Hammond with the amber (and mosquito). Now replace that with archeobotanic John Letts and wheat and rye grains and you got Oxford Artisan Distillery.
One of the stories I’ll never forget as a kid is Jurassic Park. I loved Jurassic Park. Sure I was scared of the T-Rex – I often dreamt of being chased by one, even till today in fact. But damn was it cool, how there was this hidden world of dinosaurs, brought to life from a single mosquito in a piece of amber (in real life mosquitoes were just a nuisance). Just blew my mind!
How I felt watching the movie.
Well, a tiny craft distillery out of Oxford, UK, is perhaps as close as we’ll get to Jurassic Park.
Oxford Artisan Distillery was born out of a chance encounter with archaeobotanist grain expert, John Letts, who introduced the team to ancient heritage grains.
Accordingly, John discovered back in 1994, more than 200 well preserved examples of traditional wheat and rye landraces. Landraces are land areas that hold a diverse mix of crops that came from all over the world through nomads and have adapted to local growing conditions.
Modern grains are half the height of heritage grains, as they were designed for industrialised farming practices.
These landraces were hidden in the bottom layers of thatched buildings that dated back to the late Medieval periods, 1375 – 1550 AD.
These varietals were thought to be long lost when England industrialised in the early 1800s.
John and the team, as they worked to collect thousands of samples of these newly discovered (well 1994 is pretty new compared to 14th Century) heritage grains alongside other grains that would have grown naturally alongside them, from gene banks, farmers and collectors around the world.
These were subsequently organically planted and harvested for over 15 years to mirror and recreate the diversity that once existed. This all became ready for distillation in 2014.
This led to the distillery’s inaugural whisky, Oxford Rye Whisky, as it is called, which punches in at 46.3% abv and is bottled at the standard 70cl, and aged for 3 years. It is limited to 502 bottles.
The whisky is produced in small batches as the distillery aims to ensure the land is well regenerated to support biodiversity that goes into every bottle. So if you get your hands on it, cherish it!
Banana Yoghurt, Flowery Herbs, Freshly Baked Bread, Caramel, Butter, Clove, Nutmeg and Nuts
Creamy Banana Bread, Toasted Sourdough, Almonds and Vanilla
Praline, Refreshing Rye, Warming Spices
Fruity and Spicy, Layers of Cream, Bread and Herbs
“Our whisky began life with a diverse maslin grain harvest in 2017, with several different grains growing together in the same field including multiple ancient heritage rye strains, wheat strains and even a few oats and a few thistles, such is the result of letting nature take its course in a healthy, diverse field.”
The whisky is rooted in American Rye Whisky (90% Maslin, of which 70% Rye and 20% Wheat, and 10% Heritage Malted Barley), and enjoyed an extended fermentation in Hungarian Oak vats which contributed fruity and creamy notes.
The toasty sourdough crust flavors are the result of flaking the grain rather than the standard process of milling it, which created coarse flakes that was then turned into an 8,000-litre porridge and stirred vigorously by oar, an Oxford tradition.
It was finally matured in two virgin American Oak casks for 3 years.
“This whisky perfectly showcases our distillery terroir.”
The whisky is also certified organic and is the only English distiller to use genetically diverse populars of ancient heritage organic grains. The distillery itself is also the first certified organic grain-to-glass distillery in the UK.
A second batch will feature the same grain mix as in Batch #1, the key difference being that fermentation took place instead in spring 2018 under warmer weather, which the distillery believes has resulted in more tropical fruit characters.
The second batch is also aged in new American Oak casks and finished in a wine cask.
This is some pretty cool stuff and a lot of work that went into making this bottle of whisky.
I think ultimately there’s a greater consideration towards sustainable farming and certainly the very unique process used by the distillery here is a big departure from the less bold “experiments” of simply varying cask maturation that most other distilleries have employed.
Heritage grains that feature a diversity of grain varietals used at the distillery.
Now the caveat is that I don’t know how much of the whisky’s flavour is really so different because of the supposedly unique heritage grains used, given that only about 10% is truly heritage barley and the other 90% is Maslin, which is a mixed crop of rye and wheat, which fair enough, is uncommon these days. Most farms harvest a single type of crop and they don’t do much mixing of varietals in crop fields.
So really what we have here as the distillery’s key differentiator is a whisky made of a rojak (a dish-turned-adjective found in Singapore/Malaysia that comprises of a mix of incongruous ingredients) of grains.
This is rojak, a mix of fried dough fritters, cucumber, peanuts, lotus, tossed in sweet sauce. It is a soft, hard, chewy, crunchy, sweet, salty - a rojak of flavors.
(Image Source: Lifestyle Asia)
Of course this would certainly bear an impact on the whisky produced but how much of it is because of the terroir, or the heritage grains used, and the intermingling of varietals, that is much more difficult to put a finger on.
The team behind Oxford Artisan Distillery. No dinosaurs were spotted.
That said, it sounds like a great goal the team is working towards and it certainly is an innovative way to encourage sustainable farming practices and the bringing back of biodiversity and different grain varietals that were thought to be lost.
That is a goal I think we can all get behind.
For more, we actually cover the distillery, its origins and goals, and processes in more detail over at WhiskyDex (link here)!